I'm part of the Indiana Film Journalists Association, a group of movie writers that give out various movie-related awards at the end of the year. A great many films are screened for groups like ours in November and December. Sometimes there will be three movies screened in a day, sometimes three movies get scheduled at the same time. There's no way for every member of the group to see everything, so we dash off emails to each other to draw attention to movies we think the group might find deserving of recognition. I saw Allied a few days ago and sent my colleagues the following note: Allied — good movie, probably not a big contender for nominations.
That's my note to you as well. Allied is a good movie, with the filmmaker trying to combine modern, mainstream attitudes toward film violence (show the consequences of violent acts) with "they don't make 'em like that anymore" sensibilities (movie stars, glamorous locations, stories full of romance and intrigue). It's entertaining and involving, but it takes too long to get rolling and there's a curious sense of hesitancy in the central relationship, except during the lovemaking scenes. I enjoyed Allied. I was engaged by Allied. But it didn't sweep me away.
Robert Zemeckis directs and the man that brought us the Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump, The Polar Express and, more recently, Flight and The Walk, tones down the TAH-DAH special effects. The effects are still there, mind you, but this time — for the most part — they aren't jumping up and down and waving their arms at you.
Digital doodling aside, Zemeckis tries to stay focused on the story, which is set during World War II (you can tell right away it's not set in contemporary America because the swastikas are professionally made and not spray-painted onto the walls of schools and churches). It opens with Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachuting into a Moroccan desert. He travels to Casablanca, where he pretends to be the husband of French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard).
We stay in Casablanca for 41 minutes, drinking in the atmosphere and watching Max and Marianne deceive those around them while eyeing each other with suspicion and perhaps something more. Wait, "perhaps" is coy. They fall for each other.
I grew restless during this part of the film. I could see what Zemeckis (working from Steven Knight's screenplay) was doing. I could see what Pitt and Cotillard were doing. But the hesitancy appropriate to the situation felt more like it belonged to the actors than the characters. Maybe it was just me, but I didn't feel connected to the characters until they had their sandstorm tryst and pulled off their big Moroccan mission. Finally, the movie was in gear.
Cut to a London suburb. Max and Marianne are married with a baby on the way. Wedded life is bliss for the couple, though the mother-to-be frets when her hubby has to clock in and go kill Nazis. The baby is born during a battle (conceived in a sandstorm, born in an aerial attack — SYMBOLISM). And then ...
And then I paused for a SPOILER ALERT. You almost certainly know where the film is headed. The direction has been spelled out in the trailers for the film and most articles about it. In case you missed them, I'll just say that Max is forced to investigate Marianne. The consequences could be grave. END SPOILER.
For those of you that skipped the spoiler, I will only say that another mission causes great risk to the family. Some writers have complained about the handling of the storyline, especially its conclusion, but I think it worked.
So why is Allied good, but not great? I consider Brad Pitt a great character actor. He's done remarkable things in supporting roles. But I believe he's uncomfortable as a leading man. I believe at some level the Oklahoma boy thinks it inappropriate to exploit his physical beauty. And that discomfort with being a full-fledged Movie Star translates into a performance that goes flat — not consistently, but enough to take the sheen off a contemporary old-fashioned movie that needs that sheen to get where it's trying to go. Allied doesn't have it, so ... good movie, probably not a big contender for nominations.